Basic Books, £9.99, 381pp from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030; Atlantic, £16.99, 276pp. £15.29 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Born Digital, By John Palfrey & Urs Gasser
The Shallows, By Nicholas Carr
Friday 24 September 2010
Google has announced a new refinement to its search engine, "Google Instant". For those of a certain literary era, just beginning to get used to having a Borgesian library at their fingertips, it may prove a drop-down window too far. Put in "po" on the way to completing "poetry", and it tries instantly to guess what you're looking for - anything from "P&O ferries" to "Poundland" to "Pontins". It's like the spewing-forth of some vast language machine, using Burroughsian cut-up or Joycean word-association as a way-station to that elusive Jamie Oliver Elvisburger recipe.
Nicholas Carr cites this as exactly the kind of scattering of attention, and devolving of mental rigour, that we should be alert to in our cyberculture. Described in some reviews as the Silent Spring of cyberculture, The Shallows attempts to put some scientific and humanistic substance into the headline claim that the internet is, literally, rotting our brains. Whereas John Palfrey and Urs Gasser's book Born Digital is a diligent attempt to chart the lifestyle of "millenials", The Shallows is an impressively assembled but ultimately misguided broadside from a former tech-head and business editor. He, I fear, might be mistaking a subjective midlife crisis for an objective paradigm shift.
Carr's psychological charge against the Net is simply put. The excess of possibilities that an average web page gives us, the way it crowds our short-term memory with scores of relatively inconsequential choices, is reverting us to our earliest human state. The average click-fest makes us into twitchy hunter-gatherers. That same propensity to be easily distracted which saved our haunches from slavering predators on the savannah is that which makes the hotlink and Flash animation so compelling. Depth of thought is being sacrificed to our nervy addiction to interaction.
As is the way with evolutionary accounts of the human mind, there are other explanations. As Carr says, the dynamism of the internet has recapitulated centuries of media change over 15 years. But if we need a socio-biological root for the explosive take-up of this medium, there's a survival trait just as credible as our distractedness on Paleolithic plains. And that's our playful natures.
The moment of play in human (and higher mammalian) development is almost exactly homologous with the internet itself. Both allow organisms to act freely and joyfully; they create spaces for play that are open, robustly structured but distantly monitored. Both provide a mess of usable materials, by which players can explore both themselves and the world.
From this perspective, Carr has been cherry-picking the neuroscience to suit his neo-Presbyterian prejudice. Research also points to the "neoteny" of our brains, a perpetual youthfulness. Under the right conditions of surplus and security, that quality can evade all habit, stretching way beyond the growing splurge of childhood into adulthood. Zoom back a little on the internet, putting its daily churn into perspective, and it comes to look more like a glorious amplification of the creative plenitude of human nature, rather than a shallowing of our minds.
Carr's mistake is that he mistakes second-order questions about cultural etiquette on the internet for first-order questions on the level of species-being. For example, a well-aimed web search produces as much synoptic excitement as the inquiring student's first scan of the periodicals shelf in a library, or titles in a university bookshop. This is surely no surprise, given the scholarly foundation of the internet protocol itself by CERN physicist Tim Berners-Lee.
Carr may be genuinely worried about the internet turning us all into "lab rats constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of... nourishment". But I think he would do better to defend its potentials, and focus his anxiety more on the crude game-ifying of cyberspace: the addictions and peer susceptibility of "casual games" like Farmville. And Carr takes a huge risk in conflating a trashy stage in the development of games culture with the Enlightenment powers of the open Net.
Carr makes a half-point that the business model of the "free" web - you get it for nothing, if we can capture your behaviour and sell it to advertisers - depends on the relentless interactivity of every page. But there are armies of authors who say that what this intrusive click-commerce proves is the dot-communism of the net. We seem to have inadvertently built a socialist infrastructure out of code and computers, guided by the principle of "from each according to their ability and to each according to their need". Its example is inspiring social change in many non-digital areas.
Born Digital is more satisfyingly comprehensive here, in its coverage of the social and civic movements enabled by the Net. It might not have the pop-science ambition of The Shallows, but it benefits from at least trying to map the diversity of lifestyles, enterprises and dilemmas that net culture generates. Carr's undoubted fluency as a public intellectual has led him up a strange path. He should be defending the liberal openness of public networks (the "net neutrality" issue). Instead, he's thumping his leather-clad classics against his palm, deep in the forests of his new Colorado home.
I saw Carr speak at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, where net evangelists and sceptics were both happy to swarm around a Georgian architectural utopia, joining in the unstoppable proliferation of book festivals. I didn't see much Twittering, but all the speeches were podcasted for future enjoyment, and the local blogosphere was vibrantly a-hum. As those born digital might say: whatever; it's all good. As the dearly departed Scottish national makar (or poet) Edwin Morgan would have said, there's "nothing not giving messages". It's a shame Carr seems to be so tired of the carnival of communication, whether it comes as inert wood-pulp-and-ink, or flickering glass and plastic.
Pat Kane founded the Scottish ideas-blog Thoughtland (www.thoughtland.info)
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